Children are often labeled as being ‘so resilient’, but real resilience is built on nurturing relationships and should not be taken for granted

Source: Nursery World

By: Anne O’Connor
Date: December 21, 2020

While some tabloids have been screaming that children have ‘gone backwards’ in their learning and development during the pandemic, it has also being said that our youngest children have bounced back easily into school and nursery, despite all the changes to their provision. This seems to be proof to many that babies and young children are hardy, resilient and ‘coping fine’ – so, we needn’t worry about them?

Head teachers, managers and practitioners have also commented with a degree of surprise at how easily many children have returned to the setting, with apparently no ill-effects or need for prolonged settling, despite changes to staffing and familiar routines.

Reflective practitioners have found themselves asking the question, ‘Does this mean that all our principled efforts to ensure children forge strong relationships with familiar key people and routines were not actually so important after all?’

This is exactly what we should expect of reflective practitioners – that they ask themselves tough questions on the basis of what they observe. Thankfully, the reflection process has brought them back to an understanding that it is precisely because of all those principled efforts that many children are doing as well as they are.

Other social, environmental and biological factors (for example, a child’s temperament and home circumstances) will have played a part too, but the work on relationship building that went on in early years settings before and continued during lockdown has been a key contributor to children’s resilience on their return to more regular provision.


Why positive relationships are so important in developing resilience.

We still don’t know everything there is to know about resilience and how it develops, but the saying that ‘what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger’ would seem not to play as big a part in its development as traditionally thought.

Extensive work on resilience in young children by the Center on the Developing Child at Harvard University suggests that it is ‘the result of a combination of protective factors’, and that, ‘The single most common factor for children who develop resilience is at least one stable and committed relationship with a supportive parent, caregiver, or other adult.’

These relationships provide the personalized responsiveness, scaffolding and protection that buffer children from developmental disruption. They also build key capacities – such as the ability to plan, monitor, and regulate behavior – that enable children to respond adaptively to adversity and thrive.

A working paper on resilience by the National Scientific Council on the Developing Child concludes: ‘This combination of supportive relationships, adaptive skill-building, and positive experiences constitutes the foundations of what is commonly called resilience’ (see References). So, it is not the hard knocks that make you resilient – in fact, it’s the opposite!


How learning to trust ourselves builds resilience, self-regulation, and a sense of self-worth

The current understanding of attachment theory indicates that positive early relationship and co-regulation experiences not only support bonding and secure attachments, they also build trust. The child learns to trust not only that the grown-ups around them will be responsive and keep them safe, but also gradually learns to trust themselves to ‘be OK’ during adversity.

This happens very slowly at first, as the baby learns that intolerable feelings (for example, being wet, hungry, alone, etc.) can be tolerated with help, initially for very short periods and then gradually for longer and with less help.

Important connections are being made in the brain while this is happening, and a growing ability to self-regulate is developing – that is, the capacity to be able to adapt to stressful situations and recover quickly from them (Stuart Shanker).

Ideally, as that trust grows, we learn safe and healthy self-soothing strategies which are at the heart of self-regulation. For a baby or very young child, this might mean thumb-sucking or being open to distraction, leading to flexible thinking and reframing, ultimately enabling us to persevere and thrive, despite difficulties. Having a range of strategies prompts a sense of ‘I’ve got this’ (trusting ourselves to be OK), even in the midst of adversity.

Unconditional love

Strongly linked to this is a sense of ‘unconditional love’ – where a child feels loved and accepted regardless of their behaviour, appearance, achievements, etc. This sense of self-worth helps reassure us all that we are worthy of love and security even when things are not going well. Although not impossible to acquire these in later life, all have a direct link to our earliest relationships and help sustain that sense of resilience we would like to see in all our children.

This is why paying attention to supporting nurturing relationships in the setting, ideally through a key-person approach that creates a ‘triangle of trust’ (between child, parent and key practitioners), is worth all that extra effort.

The key person role

This triangle of trust helps children feel secure enough to maintain a strong connection with the setting even during lengthy periods away – and to enjoy and appreciate being back again without struggling through a ‘bumpy’ transition. A setting full of happy, relaxed children with adults who prioritize relationships also makes for an easier environment to settle into if you are new and arriving at nursery or school for the first time during a global pandemic.


Compliance as a coping strategy and how it may mask anxiety and distress

It is true that some children will take that first step into nursery with apparent confidence, though it is worth remembering that for many children, ‘compliance’ is a coping strategy that means they keep it together while in the setting, but release all their anxiety and distress at home where they feel safest.

For new and longstanding children alike, many parents might be bearing the brunt of these anxious behaviors and signs of distress at home, while all seems ‘fine’ in the setting. The motivation to dampen down emotions and ‘be good’ in nursery or school, though appearing to be a sign of resilience (or even self-regulation) and useful in the short term, may not be so healthy or helpful in the long run.

There will also be children who seem to settle quickly but then, once the so-called ‘honeymoon period’ is over, begin to react in ways that surprise both parents and practitioners. It is possible that we may only begin to see the true impact of the pandemic experience on children’s emotional health and well-being sometime in the future, and that we shouldn’t rush to assume that the effect on our youngest citizens was minimal.


How do we build resilience for the future?

We all need a bit of challenge and adversity to strengthen our resilience muscles, but it needs to be the right kind of challenge, at the right time and with the right kind of support to make the right kind of difference. This is why ‘tuning in’ and knowing our children well is so important, together with opportunities for developmentally appropriate physical and emotional challenges.

Resilience is built on:

  • having enough nurturing relationships to create a sense of security and trust in oneself as well as others
  • feelings of self-worth and knowing others believe in us – to help us believe in ourselves
  • having a safe place to build our resilience gradually – to take risks and make mistakes
  • being well-supported through difficulty by people who know us well enough to tune in and understand what helps us best.

All the above are even more crucial for those children living in challenging circumstances.

The more we shift our understanding of resilience as something built on relationship rather than ‘rugged individualism’, the more likely we are to appreciate the value of a true key-person approach that fosters the kinds of relationships that can really make a difference to our children’s resilience to adversity. Perhaps, as psychologist Louis Cozolino (2014) suggests, ‘We are not the survival of the fittest, we are the survival of the nurtured.’

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